Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Bereishit, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
On the morning after his dream of a ladder stretching heavenward, Yaakov renames the location of the dream Beit E-l.
He then makes the following vow: “If God will be with me and will guard me on this path upon which I go; and [if he] will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and [if] I will return in peace to the home of my father and the Lord will be my God – then this stone which I have set up as a pillar will be a House of God and all that you give to me I will repeatedly tithe to you.”
How are we to understand Yaakov’s vow? The patriarch seems to be making his worship of God conditional upon material gain!
Pivotal to our understanding is the interpretation of the phrase “and the Lord will be my God.” Could Yaakov possibly be saying that “the Lord will be his God” only if certain conditions are met?
Compounding the problem is the fact that the very conditions which Yaakov now seems to be questioning were already promised to him by God in his dream: “And behold I will be with you; and I will guard you wherever you will go; and I will return you to this soil….”
Why does Yaakov seem to be unsure of those promises now?
A variety of approaches to Yaakov’s vow are offered by the classical commentaries. One authority quoted in the Midrash simply cannot accept Yaakov’s vow as a response to his dream. Yaakov would not question the very assurances that he had already received from God. This scholar, therefore, makes the radical suggestion that the order of events within the biblical text must be reversed. The patriarch’s vow actually preceded the dream, and God’s promises were a direct response to Yaakov’s concerns. (Note: The rule that events in the Torah are not necessarily recorded in chronological order is used by the rabbis sparingly, often to address otherwise unsolvable issues.)
Numerous other commentaries maintain that Yaakov’s words are not to be understood as a conditional vow at all but, instead, as a promise or a heartfelt prayer.
“If I am simply given the opportunity,” the patriarch is saying, “this is what I promise to do.”
Rashi, for example, directly correlates each of Yaakov’s requests to God’s corresponding promise in the dream. The patriarch is outlining how he will respond if the details of the dream are fulfilled.
Yaakov’s statement “and the Lord will be my God,” continues Rashi, relates to an earlier divine promise given to Yaakov’s grandfather, Avraham: “to be a God to you and to your children after you.” By recalling that pledge, says Rashi, quoting the Sifrei, Yaakov prays that God’s name will rest upon him and upon his children, so that he will give rise to no unfit progeny.”
The Rashbam interprets the phrase “and the Lord will be my God” as a prayer that God assist the patriarch in all of his future dealings, while the Sforno maintains that the patriarch’s entire vow should be seen as a request on Yaakov’s part that God remove all impediments to spiritual growth from his path. The Sforno goes on to say that Yaakov agrees to be held to a higher standard if his request is fulfilled: “‘and the Lord will be my God’ – then the Lord will relate to me as a judge and determine whether or not I fulfill my obligations.”
A totally different, fascinating approach is suggested by the Ramban. Unlike the scholars previously quoted, the Ramban interprets the phrase “and the Lord will be my God” not as part of Yaakov’s requests but as a realization.
As a result of God’s promise to return him to the Land of Israel, the patriarch now understands that a complete relationship with God can only be experienced within that land. He therefore says: “‘And I will return in peace to the home of my father; and the Lord will be my God.’ – Only once I return to this land will the Lord fully be my God.”
Yaakov is not placing conditions upon his belief in God. He is simply stating that he understands the truth: A Jew can only be complete with his God within the Land of Israel.
The Ramban bases his interpretation of the vow upon the rabbinic dictum “all who live outside the land of Israel are is if they have no God.”
The Ramban’s explanation of Yaakov’s vow is consistent with a global, revolutionary approach taken by this scholar concerning the relationship between Jewish observance and the Land of Israel. The Ramban maintains that all mitzvot which we fulfill outside of the Land of Israel are fundamentally incomplete. So singular is our connection to God when we are within the Land of Israel, that Shabbat, kashrut, tefillin, the holidays, and all other obligations of our tradition can only be observed in their fullness within that land.
In a perfect example of practicing what you preach, the Ramban’s philosophical commitment to the Land of Israel was concretely mirrored in his own life decisions. At the age of seventy-three, the Ramban embarked on the difficult and dangerous journey to the Land of Israel, thereby fulfilling his lifelong dream of settling in the Holy Land. Once in Israel, the Ramban worked diligently to restore the Jewish community in Jerusalem. He is considered by many to be the father of modern Jewish settlement in that holy city.
Perhaps the Ramban’s approach can be taken one step further by interpreting Yaakov’s words “and I will return in peace to the home of my father” not as one of the patriarch’s requests but as the first of his promises.
Yaakov’s first and primary commitment was a commitment to return to the Land of Israel.
This pledge was much more complex than it sounds.
To understand, we must return to the scene of Yaakov’s dream. Put yourself, for a moment, in Yaakov’s place during the moments before his vision.
Bedding down in the darkness of the night, you are terribly fearful – fearful of the unknown, of your aloneness and of the threat posed by your brother…
You harbor, however, an even deeper fear. You live at a time when gods are considered territorial. If you leave your land, you leave your God behind.
And now you stand poised, for the first time, to run from the land that your family has not left for over a generation, the land to which your grandfather had been commanded to journey. What will become of your relationship with your God?
In response to your fears, God grants you a majestic vision of a ladder stretching heavenward upon which angels are ascending and descending. True, the angels who have watched over you until now are leaving; but other angels, other emissaries of your God, are descending to accompany you on your journey.
God appears to you in your dream with promises: that the land upon which you lie will be given to you and to your children; that your children will be as numerous as the dust of the earth and will spread to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south; that the nations of the world will be blessed through you and your descendents.
But then God says something truly astonishing: “And behold I will be with you and I will guard you wherever you may go.”
Suddenly you truly realize that your God is different – that there is only one God, Who is not tied to any land, Who is omnipresent.
You are no longer afraid…for you now know that by leaving the land you will not leave your God behind. He will be with you always.
This realization, however, potentially makes you think: If God will be with me wherever I go; if I can be successful anywhere; then, perhaps, I need no longer be tied to a specific land or place.
Further, if my task is to spread God’s word, won’t that be best accomplished by living in the world? Perhaps my family has developed past the need for a homeland.
But then God continues in your dream: “And I will return you to this soil; for I will not leave you until I have done all that I have promised to you.”
And you realize the fullness of your challenge. For while God will be with you wherever you may go; His constant presence does not release you from the obligation to return to your own land. There, and only there, will your relationship with God be complete; there and only there can you truly fulfill your destiny.
Your relationship with your Creator will be defined by a constant tension. You will live under his protection wherever you may be but you will fully relate to him only within your land. You may succeed in exile but your destiny waits for you in your homeland.
Yaakov, therefore, awakens the next morning and pledges: “Dear God: If You truly will be with me wherever I go; if I am successful in my endeavors in exile; then, I promise You I will not misunderstand. I will not assume that my success in exile means that I can remain there.
“I promise: ‘And I will return in peace to the home of my father.’ Given the opportunity, I will come back.”
Points to Ponder
The tension delineated at the dawn of our history, in Yaakov’s dream and in his subsequent vow, has marked our nation’s experience across the face of history.
For centuries, during a long and turbulent exile, we have retained a deep belief in God’s constant presence. Given the opportunity, we have succeeded greatly in land after land, contributing well beyond our numbers to the society around us.
And yet, we have always harbored the dream of a return to our homeland, of a return to Zion.
During the modern era, however, this age-old balance came under new scrutiny and challenge. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw within the world Jewish community growing dreams of real acceptance, coupled with visions of a new universal culture. Many Jews began to view the concept of a return to Zion as parochial and outdated. We had become, they felt, a global people and had, therefore, outgrown the need for a homeland. Zionism, with its practical vision of a return to Israel, was seen as an archaic throwback, to be actively opposed.
Thus, in 1885, the Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform Jewish movement stated that in light of the modern era of “universal culture of heart and intellect”: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state…”
By 1937, however, things had dramatically changed. Buffeted by the reality of world events, the same Reform movement affirmed in its Columbus Platform “the obligation of all Jewry to aid in [Palestine’s] upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”
The Holocaust, of course, gave further lie to the vision of a harmonious universal culture; and Zionist ideology can be found today alive and well across the religious spectrum, within the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities.
Ideology, however, is not enough. As noted before (see Lech Lecha 1, Points to Ponder), we live at a time when a personal return to Zion is within our grasp.
Yaakov’s vow challenges us.
What will be our response?